My father, Robert Rody Cunniff, passed away on January 20th, 2008. He was a loving and kind father who adored his children and for that my brother Stephen and I will always benefit. His wonderful companion Kate Resek has been his rock during this time and we are forever grateful.
He had been quite ill for the past year but earned the nickname "Mr. Hurrah" for his love of life and for his ability to come back from seemingly impossible periods of weakness. He read the New York Times cover to cover each day, almost to the very end. He listened to Ella Fitzgerald in the hospital, and recreated Leonard Bernstein's music in his head when outside information became too much. It was only when he had no quality of life left that he finally let go. My brother Stephen was with him at the time of death.
Following is an obituary written by a family friend highlighting his career as a television writer at the the center of the zeitgeist. His Rolodex is a piece of history. Culture was my father's religion, not that he had one.
ROBERT CUNNIFF: GREAT, “GREY EMINENCE” OF TALK TELEVISION *
From Disney to ‘the Duke,’ from ‘Today’ to ‘Sesame Street.’
Emmy Award-winning television writer and producer, Robert Cunniff, 81, died January 20 in Brooklyn, New York, after a long illness.
One of his generation’s most astute creative forces in “talk” television, Mr. Cunniff’s prominence “behind the scenes” in the 1970’s inspired The New Yorker magazine to publish a cartoon showing his unmistakable figure plotting the elements of a daily TV talk show on a bulletin board, a rare cartoon which required no caption.
As a writer for “The Today Show” in the mid-sixties, he worked closely with Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters, then the country’s first female TV anchor. Mr. Cunniff was often credited with elevating that program’s news reputation with what was then unusually penetrating coverage, for a morning show, of the Viet Nam war, the riot-ridden 1968 Chicago Convention, U.S. political assassinations, and the emerging American drug and music culture. He also helped launch “broadcast news” into the satellite era with the first Early Bird Satellite Broadcast, from Rome, where Mr. Cunniff also wrote a speech for Pope Paul VI, which garnered him a nickname: “The Holy Ghost Writer.”
From 1969-72 Mr. Cunniff’s wit brightened the late night version of “THE Dick Cavett Show” on ABC, much of whose content has been newly released on DVD and repeated on the A&E Network. His formidable knowledge base always came in handy on this high profile series, such as the time in 1971 when he decided to book Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal on the same show, and then, correctly anticipating a
blistering intellectual row, flew in the elderly, mild-mannered New Yorker writer Janet
Flanner as, he said, “referee.” Mr. Cunniff’s often provocative contributions to
that show during its most influential era included booking Salvador Dali, Lillian Gish and Satchel Paige on a single program, in 1970. A popular, unpredictable show on which one guest died [Publisher J. I. Rodale, in 1971] and another walked off in rage [former Georgia Governor Lester Maddox, in 1970], it was also, for Mr. Cunniff, a chance to spice up the standard talk show format with what was then an unusually rich offering of live rock music, such as the appearance - fresh off the Woodstock concert stage, some of them with Woodstock mud still on their boots - of the venue’s major superstars [Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby Still & Nash, Joni Mitchell]. A devoted film buff, Mr. Cunniff was also the force behind Ingmar Bergman’s and Laurence Olivier’s first appearances on an American TV talk program, another Cavett Show milestone. It was even Mr. Cunniff who selected what became known as the Cavett theme song: “Glitter & Be Gay” from Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.” Mr. Cunniff reprised his role as a primary editorial force behind Mr. Cavett when the host returned to public television in the early 1980’s and then to CNBC in the 1990’s.
From 1972-75, Mr. Cunniff was a Producer for “Sesame Street” for which he wrote countless memorable sketches, winning, along with the show’s creator, Jon Stone, the EMMY for “Outstanding Achievement In Children’s Programming” in 1973.
In 1976, Mr. Cunniff signed on as Managing Editor of “Good Morning, America” [originally known as “AM America”]. His often highbrow tastes could collide with those of the ABC network brass, but he formed lasting friendships with a then little known writer he had hired, Broadway author Thomas Meehan [“Annie,” “The Producers”] and with the actress Barbara Feldon, who occasionally hosted the program.
One of his most enduring achievements is the long running, critically acclaimed Disney Channel hit “Mouseterpiece Theater,” a deadpan parody of “Masterpiece Theater,” conceived, produced and co-written by Mr. Cunniff in 1983. Now a cult classic, the series featured vintage Disney cartoon shorts outlandishly introduced by George Plimpton in a saucy send up of Alistair Cooke. Publisher’s Weekly called it “one of TV’s finest hours” [March 23, 1984].
A devotee of Manhattan and its culture - he liked to say he came to New York in 1953 because of a passion for the work of his other idol, the choreographer George Balanchine. He was able to celebrate Balanchine and many other artists he admired, during his tenure as a writer with LIVE FROM LINCOLN CENTER on PBS in the 1970’s. A lifelong jazz and classical music aficionado, he was one of the first to bring live jazz to national television, when as a young writer for “The Today Show” he created a groundbreaking multi-part concert series with his idol, Duke Ellington.
First and always a writer, Mr. Cunniff’s early freelance features for Newspaper Enterprise Association, Show Business Illustrated, and Show Magazine led to his first job in television, in 1961, as co-writer (with John Mosedale and Andy Rooney) and editor for CBS News’ pioneering live, daytime series “Calendar,” anchored by Harry Reasoner,. In the 1980’s, he wrote for ABC’s revival of “Omnibus” and scripted a USIA international documentary “Let Poland Be Poland.”
Robert Rody Cunniff was born September 13, 1926 in Chicago, eighth of nine children born to Elizabeth and Luke Cunniff, a longtime associate with the Chicago Democratic Party and the Mayor’s Office. He served in the U.S. Navy in World War Two’s Pacific Theater, one of five brothers who returned from overseas military service,
a test of family patriotic sacrifice which defied the “Sullivan Act” because not all of the brothers were in the same military branch.
After earning his Masters Degree in Literature from the University of Chicago on the GI bill, Mr. Cunniff went on to write for the Chicago Sun Times and TV Guide, a job he was forced to leave in 1953, after what was perceived as a conflict of interest - his winning $4750 on the TV quiz show “Break the Bank.” He bounced back with a highly successful syndicated newspaper column about television with childhood friend Tom O’Malley. “Cunniff and O’Malley,” launched in 1954, was shut down three years later after running with the sensational report that “What’s My Line” panelist Dorothy Kilgallen could see through her mask.
Mr. Cunniff is survived by his daughter, Jill Cunniff Gregoire, son Stephen Cunniff, of New York, longtime companion Kate Resek, granddaughters Chloe and Piper Gregoire and Madeline Cunniff, and a brother, Joseph Cunniff, of Chicago.
A Memorial Service will be held at 5:30 pm, February 9th, at The Unitarian Church of All Souls, 1157 Lexington Avenue @ 80th Street, Manhattan. Donations may be made “in memory of Robert Cunniff” to the fund to preserve New Orleans’ Jazz Heritage at The Tipitina’s Foundation, 4040 Tulane Ave, Ste 8000, New Orleans LA 70119; 866-372-0512);https://tipitinasfoundation.org/donate 2/.